Dolph Lundgren has had a couple of cups of coffee with the American pop-cultural psyche: haughtily sneering over Apollo Creed’s death in Rocky IV, wearing a necklace of severed ears in Universal Soldier, that sort of thing. But he never crossed over to the upper tier of action stars, and it’s hard to say why, exactly. He’s never been a great actor, but neither were Schwarzenegger or Stallone or Van Damme. He’s a physical specimen in ways that those guys can’t claim, towering over them and looking impassively down at whoever he might be fighting. He’s had a fascinating life—a degree in chemical engineering, a couple of European karate championships, a mid-’80s stint as Grace Jones’s boyfriend. His name is really fun to say out loud. He should be an icon.
And as Lundgren has gotten older, he’s become a heavier, more interesting presence, his face all lined and weathered. He seems like someone who’s seen some things. And yet, for about two decades, he’s been languishing in the straight-to-DVD action-movie ghetto, making a long string of movies that mostly aren’t great but are sure as hell a lot better because of his presence. The only times he’s been seen on theater screens in wide release in the last few years are the Expendables movies, and he’s one of the best things about them. The first Expendables was a pretty bad movie, but I love the way it treated Lundgren: Over the course of the movie, he turned evil and got killed, and he still showed up drinking with all the other heroes at the end, no explanation necessary. He just had to mutter something like, “Yeah, sorry about that guys,” and that was all we needed. Sylvester Stallone, who directed the movie, knew that action-movie dorks love Lundgren and wanted to see him back, and it’s worth throwing away cinematic logic to keep that big fucker around.
In fact, the one really bad thing about Lundgren’s portrayal in that first Expendables was his fight against Jet Li, which wasn’t what it should’ve been. That fight should’ve been a classic. It should’ve been the action-movie version of Kurt Angle vs. Rey Mysterio at SummerSlam in 2002: The big guy tossing the smaller guy all around before the smaller guy uses his wits and speed to get back into the fight. And I think that was the story of the Lundgren/Lee fight, but Stallone filmed it in a shitty, slapdash, shaky-cam style, so it was hard to tell what the fuck was going on. So I hope you know what I’m saying when I tell you that Lundgren fights the great Thai martial artist Tony Jaa in Skin Trade, which came out earlier this year and is already up on Netflix Instant, and it’s just about everything that Li fight should’ve been.
Tony Jaa, if you don’t know, came to international prominence in Thai action movies like Ong-Bak and The Protector, doing moves so fast and vicious and dangerous that they really don’t seem like they should be physically possible. His martial art is Muay Thai, which means he does these brutal strikes with his knees and elbows, and I’m always surprised that he doesn’t actually kill his costars in these movies. Jaa seemed like he’d be the next Bruce Lee for a while, especially when he quit making movies for a few years to become a Buddhist monk. His movies since returning from the monastery haven’t quite been up to his old standards, but he got a chance to do some cool stuff in a henchman role in Furious 7 earlier this year. That was a small role, and we sadly didn’t get to see him kick a car in half or ride an elephant in a car chase or do any of the other cool shit that I imagined when I read that Tony Jaa would be in a Fast & Furious movie. But he’s still in one of the year’s biggest movies. And in Skin Trade, he gets his first real starring role in an English-language movie. He’s nowhere near as good at speaking English as he is at kicking people, but we still get to see him do stuff like run down the side of a construction crane and fight Dolph Lundgren.
The best thing Skin Trade has going for it is its world-historical collection of action stars. Especially for a straight-to-VOD movie, this thing has an absolutely fucking ridiculous cast: Every substantive role is filled by an action-cinema hall-of-famer. Beyond Lundgren and Jaa, there’s also Michael Jai White, the great straight-to-DVD action star, and he gets a deeply satisfying fight with Jaa as well. The villain is Ron Perlman, speaking in a goofy Serbian accent and throwing a few punches near the end of the movie. The crotchety police chief is Peter Weller, who’s barely in the movie and maybe shoots a gun a few times. Those guys don’t get a whole lot to do, but it’s still motherfucking Hellboy and Robocop. That counts for something.
Beyond that, just about every character who isn’t played by one of those guys dies right away. When we meet Lundgren’s family, it’s like, “Oh boy, here we go, boring blissful-home-life scenes,” but then he gets a bazooka shot through his window two minutes later, and boom, no more family. (Lundgren spends most of the movie with some gnarly burn-scar makeup on one side of his face, so that’s another positive.) Same goes for Perlman’s Serbian-criminal-brat sons and Jaa’s police partner. These are one-note cardboard-cutout characters, but they aren’t around for long enough to really get annoying.
Honestly, though, this isn’t a great movie in most respects. It’s a passion project for Lundgren, who co-wrote and co-produced, and it’s about human trafficking, a subject he’s been researching for years. But Perlman’s human trafficker is really just a generic snarling action-movie villain, and the movie spends a lot of time gawking at boobs in strip clubs for something that’s trying to raise our awareness of sex slavery. The movie has no real sense of style, the locations are generic, and none of the characters have any depth at all. Too much of the action is of the gunfight variety, and giving Tony Jaa a gun is like putting Secretariat on a skateboard: It goes against everything that’s great about him. If you go into this looking for a new action-movie classic, you will be disappointed.
On the other hand, this is a movie with Dolph Lundgren and Tony Jaa and Michael Jai White, so if you care about action movies, you sort of have to watch it. These are three of the best guys working in the genre, and arguably three of the best ever to do it. And so if you’re hurting for something to watch some evening, you should just be aware that this is a movie with Lundgren grabbing Jaa and throwing him at the windshield of a passing van. That alone makes it better than, what, 90 percent of movies?
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one. You can read previous installments over here.